Prayer: Philippians 1:1–11
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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The past few weeks have been one of mild reflection for me. The end of one year and the start of another gives rise to think back of what has been and what’s, perhaps, been achieved in the past. In such a mood, I decided to write an annual report for the church trustees that govern the charity of Main Street Community Church. I reflected upon the helpful grants that we’ve been given in order to help the charity’s community aims and was delighted that a number stood out.
I was delighted that we’d got a grant for training some people in mental health and first aid, I was grateful that we got some money to improve our technology. I’m grateful that we have a couple of groups that come to use our buildings during the week: the Town Council meets for their council meetings here, and community choir comes once a week as well, but I think that I’ve been most reflective upon the fact that this week marked my half-decade in Frodsham.
I wonder, what’s been the impact on Main Street over those last five years? What was the hope? What was the prayer, I wonder, of those interviewing me back in November 2016, I think it was? Have they been answered? Perhaps I’d best not probe too deeply upon that one. It’s with thoughtfulness that I approach 2022, looking back and marching forwards as we look upwards. You’ll know that 2022 is the 150th anniversary of this place of worship. Vaguely, on this site. It’s about 12 feet that way as well, and that I hope that’s worth celebrating in May.
In last week’s missive, the weekly thought that I had started to send regular folk who worship here in lockdown one, I quoted from Paul’s letter in Philippians, “I thank God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel.” After five years here, I can’t help thinking that Paul’s words are true for me, just as he had the right measure of writing to that Philippian church with such warmth and affection.
He had founded this tiny little group of faithful followers in Philippi and it had obviously grown in his absence, and now, as a prisoner for his faith, he could still be gratified for the fellowship of believers who were no doubt, perhaps, paying for his food and his upkeep whilst in prison. He loved them so well, and he knew them so well, and was encouraging them as he wrote this letter, reminding them of his prayers for them with a similar sense of gratitude and love that I have for the Main Street Community Church, with all of our foibles and imperfections.
I’d like to explore, at the start of this year, exactly what Paul is praying for them, and I would wonder, would this be how we pray for one another as well? For me, prayer is so often going through a process of praise or worship, or penitence, or asking God for help, for asking God to intervene. These certainly aren’t wrong for things to pray. We’ll be looking, as I said earlier, into how Jesus prays for people next week but it seems here, for Paul, as he prays for the Philippian church, he prays quite specifically for love, and for fruitfulness, and that these things might develop in that church particularly.
Paul begins his letter with great warmth and you can tell, immediately, that he’s endeared towards this group of people. It is so different from the letters that he often had to write, for example, to those in Corinth, having to tell them off, all the time, for multiple behaviour issues. But are here with the Philippians. At least at the start of the letter, there’s a great sense of pride in what has been achieved already in terms of spreading the news of Jesus in this Roman town.
The letter continues in such an encouraging spirit, with helpful, godly advice. Today, we’re going to focus on this pastoral prayer of thanksgiving that Paul offers. Firstly, his prayer is of gratitude of partnership in the Gospel, as he puts it. Now, “partnership” is a key term that Paul uses again and again in a number of his letters and it’s the key message that the new and emerging church comes to grips with. Partnership isn’t just something that is me scratching your back and you scratching mine.
Partnership in the Greek is the word “Koinonia.” We looked at that a couple of years back. It’s rich in terms of deep friendship and fellowship, “sharingship,” if that’s a word. There’s a deep sense of being partners, being in this together, not giving up on one another. Partnership is one of those words that Paul comes back to in his letter here and elsewhere. Paul obviously sees that the Philippians are his partners, and they act out all this partnership through praying for one another and as they stand together through whatever life brings them.
Later on, in Philippians chapters 2 and 4, Paul points out some characteristics of this partnership through their servanthood, through their working together to serve God, and through their practical care of one another. This commonality is key to how a fellowship is enacted. We do it here for the same ends, that God may be glorified, and that in the process, we might glorify God. Addressing them as his fellowship then, this warm letter goes on to tell us that Paul prays for them.
There’s a sense that he prays for them often because Paul has a natural affection for this church. It was the simpler things for him to pray for knowing their needs. It seems that for maybe 10 or 11 years now, Paul has shepherded this church, probably from afar. He’d seen it grow in number, as well as experience difficulty, for Philippi was a Roman city named after the brother, I think, of one of the Roman emperors, Philip the Second, and so you can be sure that there were differences of opinion within the fellowship.
Paul knew that God had not finished with the Philippian church yet, and he writes that oh so familiar passage, “That He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Paul’s confidence in the church drives him to prayer. Whatever issues they might be facing, God walks with them, right to the bitter end.
In fact, if you read through those 11 verses that we’re looking at today, the name of Jesus is mentioned seven times. This partnership for which Paul is grateful and this prayer that he offers to God on behalf of the Philippians is all about growth in Jesus. Let’s be encouraged, God hasn’t finished with us yet, you and I. We can be grateful that our work is a work in progress in love and faithfulness.
“This is my prayer,” says Paul, “That your love may abound, and abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that you will be able to discern what is best, and pure, and blameless to the Day of Christ, filled with righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the praise and glory of God.” No doubt we could spend hours, perhaps even days, unpacking all of this but we’ve only got a few minutes today.
Suffice to say, firstly, that for Paul, if you loved, you prayed. If you loved, you prayed. Bring your nearest and dearest, your most cherished people, bring them to God. What a privilege. Paul does it with such joy, and the first thing he prays for, for the church, is love. The second is for fruitfulness—love and fruitfulness, and he seems to develop each one as he pours out this prayer to his, probably, favourite church.
Love, “agape,” is, according to theologian Mark Greene, the outgoing of the whole personality in sacrificial service, the joining of our hearts to the object of our love, and the devotion of our hearts to their good. Love is the benchmark of belonging, it’s the hallmark of partnership in the gospel. Just this week, we began, starting Friday Break, our parent and toddler group again. We had six or seven little tots running around, along with five or six parents not running around so much. It was wonderful to have two or three new parents that we’ve never met before.
Moira reported to me, afterwards, that she’d heard one parent commenting to another on how safe, secure, and welcome they’d be made here. I think they weren’t expecting a cup of coffee. It’s very odd that, “Hey, coffee?” Hospitality, it’s one of the important things here, not that we’re having coffee here today, sorry. Hopefully, in the next few weeks. I felt it again, and I hope you feel it here, too, the warm, welcoming hospitality.
Hospitality shows that we want to take time with one another, to learn from one another, to be with one another, and to show the best of God whilst doing so. This is agape for us, I think, as a church in particular. It’s no different, in many ways, to what we know as “mission” because love is mission. It’s central to who we are as individuals, as a collective of Jesus’ followers in this place, in this town.
When hospitality becomes another word for agape, we are fulfilling Jesus’ command to love one another. Rose read our scripture this morning, and I’m grateful for that. Thank you. When I visited her a little while ago, she mentioned her dad, and an expression that he told her as a child has remained with me, “What we have, we share. What we have, we share.”
This is hospitality in so many sorts of ways, both tied up with one another, “What we have, we share.” Paul’s prayer for the Philippians isn’t a lovey-dovey increase in feeling loved or feeling beloved, it’s for an abundant and increasing love so that love becomes a habit of action, not only in words, but in deeds too, and then that it might abound more and more and more.
This is Paul talking about this growth again, not that the church might become more loving, but when the fellowship loves, they learn to love more, and more, and more. What a prayer, what an action. That Main Street Community Church might be known as a fellowship that doesn’t just love, but that it loves to love, and that it goes on loving and loving and loving individuals and families, people who are alone or lonely, those who are in families, those who have no families, those who are feeling at the end of their tether.
What a blessing to hear that the two new families at Friday Break felt that love in that hour-and-a-half that they spent here because we offered a place to come, a decent brew, and a warm hall in which to gather and to play.
Next, Paul mentions knowledge or “Epignosis,” which means the knowledge of Jesus in a deep and profound, personal way, as opposed to perhaps a theoretical knowledge about who Jesus was and is. We’re getting our fill of Greek words today, aren’t we? “Epignosis,” knowledge of depth and insights, perhaps translated differently to mean “to know how I approve things,” how things are excellent. In Philippians 4, Paul goes on to reiterate this, “Whatever is good, whatever it is lovely, whatever is admirable or pure, or holy, think about such things.”
I guess, in short, Paul is praying that the church would grow in a deeper discernment or deeper discrimination of things which are admirable, and true, and noble, and full of the life of Jesus. I’m grateful if this is your prayer for Main Street, that we would be full of that stuff too. Paul continues his thoughts, praying all this growth in order that they might be pure and blameless for the Day of Christ.
So quickly we often gloss over stuff, and then when we dig and sit with it, it becomes a bit more real to us. When Paul speaks about purity, the translation takes us back to the practice of bee-keeping, apparently. Honey needed to be “sincere,” which in Latin, apparently means “without wax.” Honey was judged pure when it was lifted up in a jar and you couldn’t see any of the wax particles through it. Sounds a lovely thing, though, doesn’t it? “Without wax, sincere.”
It seems that Paul prays that the Philippian church and its motives are exactly like that, as refined honey, see-through. Paul seems to link the idea of purity with blamelessness to act as stepping stones to what he calls “the Day of Christ” rather than stumbling blocks. The Old Testament talks dozens of times about the refining process where God puts his people through a process of being fired and cleansed from impurity. Psalm 66 and Isaiah 48, for example.
I can’t imagine that being refined like a precious metal can be very comfortable, being heated to an ultra-high temperature to make things pure, and then to burn off the dross, but it seems that for Paul here, part of the process of being pure and blameless means that both the people and others around them are encouraged to grow in fruitfulness as a result of their newfound cleanness, having been purified.
Finally, after talking about being partners in the Gospel and about love abounding, and his prayer being for the church in Philippi growing deeper in knowledge and insight, Paul prays that they might be filled with righteousness. If you’ve read much of the Bible, you don’t have to look far to see the analogy about fruit. The Old Testament talks about it in terms of God’s people being a vineyard and how God has made his people to be fruitful. That He’s like the farmer, the owner of the vineyard.
Jesus talks about himself being the true vine and his followers as the branches. That the expectation is that his followers bear much fruit. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminds the people that the Fruit of the Spirit produces love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and goodness, and faithfulness, and gentleness, and self-control. Perhaps he mentions the need for righteous living here because there were some in the community that were telling people of Jesus out of selfish ambition.
He asks them not to in Philippians 2, “Don’t do anything out of selfish ambition.” Whatever the case, Paul’s prayer for the church in Philippi is that they are full of love and fruitfulness, ultimately, as he points out, right at the end of verse 11 here, that God might be glorified. He points back to the example of Jesus and points up to the purpose and the point of following Jesus, that creation might be restored to a full relationship with its father.
What about us? Paul’s prayer to the Philippians isn’t just a specific list of things that he wants God to sort out, it’s an encouragement about growing deeper into a spiritual life. It’s about love, fruitfulness, and his desire that they might be more full of love and more fruitful. The practice of living is that we don’t stay the same, but that we grow. I was talking to Brenda before the service and she’s got a new great-nephew, and he’s three weeks old. He’s opening his eyes, and he’s alert, and he’s around, and he’s growing because that’s what small people do. As we grow as a community, difficult, perhaps as it is if we’re at home and in church at the same time, and perhaps not doing the things that we’ve become used to, maybe it’s a bit difficult for us to grow together, and even if you don’t see it out working in your life, please be encouraged that you are being fruitful where you are, I’m sure of that. Loving your neighbor, getting on with your families, just showing Jesus in all sorts of different ways.
In doing so, you are showing the love of God to those around you that don’t know Jesus yet. God has begun a good work in you, in us, as partners in his work, and he will continue to completion. Let us be encouraged as we pray for one another and as we grow in love and fruitfulness this year. Amen
References and sources
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.